Thursday, September 15, 2005

A promise kept

When Frances Newton was executed in Texas Wednesday for shooting her husband and two children 18 years ago, she became the third woman -- and first black woman -- to be put to death here since executions resumed in 1982. "Strapped to the death chamber gurney and with her parents among the people watching," the AP's Michael Graczyk reported, "she declined to make a final statement, quietly saying "no" and shaking her head when the warden asked if she would like to speak."

Her motive for murder? Three weeks before the murders, Newton secretly bought $50,000 life insurance policies on herself, her husband and her daughter (apparently the murder of her other daughter was a freebie.) She named herself as beneficiary and admitted she signed her husband's name, but only to prevent him from discovering she had hidden money to pay for the policies.

No matter how ones feels about the death penalty, we kept our promise to Frances Newton. The arguments over capital punishment will likely be settled to everyone's satisfaction the day after we agree about abortion ... which is to say, probably never. We simply won't agree as a culture on who, when, where, how and why a human should be executed ... the usual debate when death and government intersect.

But when Frances Newton committed her crimes, she knew society had promised its severest consequence. A promise kept, in this case, is about the best shine one can put on a grim event.


AP's Michael Graczyk is a veteran of the Texas Death House, covering most executions in Huntsville in the past 20 years. He's probably spent more time there than a lot of stone-cold Texas killers. Far from being lurid and voyeuristic, his reporting has always been sensitive, fair and descriptive without being sensational. It's a tough job to be the eyes and ears of the public in a place where the public would rather not go.


David Elliot said...

Even if one believes in the death penalty (and, obviously, from the name of my blog, Abolish the Death Penalty, I don't) we should at least all be able to agree that government should not execute individuals if there is a slightest disagreement as to guilt.

That's the whole notion behind habeas corpus and the ability, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, to challenge unconstitutional convictions.

To say that there is doubt in Newton's case is quite the understatement. To say that her trial counsel was ineffective is quite the understatement. To say that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense is quite the understatement.

I don't come at this as an ideologue, even though I now live in Washington, D.C., where we have our share of ideologues. I am a former political reporter with the capital bureau of the Austin American-Statesman and I covered the death penalty in Texas extensively, including witnessing one execution. (And that guy was guilty.)

But Frances Newton? Every now again a case comes along where guilt is in question. This was that case. Not just her sentence -- her very conviction -- should have been overturned and she should have been given a new trial.

Ron Franscell said...

Thoughtful and eloquent stuff, David. Thank you.

luke stewart said...

The "promise" to be kept to Frances Newton and other death row inmates is to execute someone without any reasonable doubt of innocence. In Newton's case and unfortunately manny others, it seems that courts are in a hurry to murder alleged murderers. No matter how one feels about the death penalty, everyone can agree that justice is served when without any reasonable doubt, as defined by law, a person is guilty. The reality in the court system is that justice is not blind. It is only when the court starts practicing what they preach will the public begin to agree on issues like the death penalty.

Ron Franscell said...

While some people in society might entertain "reasonable doubt" about Frances Newton's guilt, her jury and subsequent judges determined that she was guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Thus, as far as the law is concerned, there was no doubt that she committed the murders, and was executed.

That's no small technicality. The jury determines its doubt, and those 12 people -- who represent society at large -- make the official and final determination. So Frances Newton wasn't executed while there was officially any doubt.

As for blind justice ... Frances Newton was the third Texas woman executed, the first black one. Mathematically, that means Texas has executed twice as many white women as black. As such, her case doesn't stand as a good statistic in the debate over racial disparities in the death penalty.

David Elliot said...

In 119 death penalty cases since 1976, jurors had absolutely no doubt about the guilt of the accused.

Later, however, evidence emerged that cleared these 119 people and they are free today. They weren't freed due to what we might call "technicalities," i.e., there was an error in jury selection or instruction. They were freed because they weren't there when the crime occurred. They didn't do it. They were actually, factually innocent.

In Newton's case, several of the members who served on her jury now say they would not have voted to convict -- much less vote for a death sentence -- had all of the evidence been presented. This evidence includes the following:

1. Newton's hands were tested after the murders occurred to see if she had fired a gun. The tests came back negative. Experts say that when one fires a gun, a process known as "stripling" occurs -- gunpowder is embedded in your skin and no matter how hard you scrub, you can't wash it off. It takes days to go away.

2. Multiple guns were recovered at Newton's home. There was a problem in terms of chain of custody and also with the fact that two of the three guns allegedly recovered simply disappeared.

3. There was an important time element attendent to the commission of this crime. Newton would have had to have murdered three people at extremely close range, then somehow cleaned up all of the blood and brain tissue that would have splattered her, then driven to her friend's house all within a 30-minute period.

Having said all that, I agree with you that this execution was not noteworthy because Newton was black or because she was a woman. It was noteworthy because she may well have been innocent.

Ron Franscell said...

Again, well-argued, David. I didn't mean to suggest that all convicted "murderers," in fact, absolutely, positively killed someone and might never be proven otherwise; the exonerations of truly innocent convicts prove you correct.

Rather, I was describing the more philosopho-legal condition of "guilt," in which, absent evidence to the contrary -- i.e., DNA evidence, admitted perjury by a key witness, etc. -- a convicted killer is officially guilty beyond a reasonable doubt ... just as O.J., Robert Blake and Michael Jackson are officially innocent (not guilty, if you prefer) of their crimes because the jury's word is technically the last one.

In Newton's case, despite all these well-reasoned arguments you make and that we see in the blogosphere (and presumably some other media,) no lawyer, judge or governor was convinced enough of their merits to be able to overturn the jury's decision.

To choose a more extreme example: If Kansas had been able to sentence confessed BTK killer Dennis Rader to death, could we have faced an eventual argument against his execution based on prior exonerated cases? Probably not, for a variety of reasons.

I am glad we have a twinge of doubt about the death penalty. It keeps us from being truly bloodthirsty and cruel. To the utmost degree, we surrender the final judgment to 12 people and must accept their judgment. It's the deal we make.

That said, may Frances Newton, her late husband and children all rest in peace.

eRobin said...

Hi Ron. I can't believe how cavalier you appear to be about the prospect of executing innocent people. The deal you're talking about is a rotten one and Newton's case is one that proves it. I don't think we should take one bit of solace in it.